Since January 4th marks our family’s first birthday of the year, it seems as good a time as any to talk about the history of birthdays. My great-niece Layla is four today, which makes this her Grand Birthday, the birthday on which someone turns the age of their birth date. For her, that means turning four on the fourth.
Customs for celebrating birthdays vary around the world, but such celebrations have been going on for a long, long time. One of the earliest birthday celebrations on record was the Egyptian Pharaoh’s birthday referred to in the Bible, which took place around 3,000 BC. Some scholars think this was not really his birthday, but rather the day he was crowned and thus ‘reborn’ as a god.
Prominent citizens in Ancient Rome were honoured with public holidays for their birthdays, and even the birthdays of common men were celebrated by friends and family. And I do mean common men. The birth of a mere female did not rate a celebration.
Considering birthday celebrations to be a pagan ritual, the early Christians refused to condone their observation, but round about the fourth century, they started celebrating Christmas as Jesus’s birthday, and that led to a relaxation in the attitude towards individual birthdays. It would, however, be many centuries before any real notice was taken of birthdays unless the person was rich and/or important.
General birthday celebrations didn’t really take off until the 18th century, when German children began having Kinderfestes. The birthday boy or girl got together with friends and had a special meal, the highlight of which was a cake with birthday candles. (The use of candles was borrowed from the Ancient Greeks, who honoured the lunar goddess, Artemis, with moon shaped cakes and put lit candles on them to imitate the moon’s glow.)
In many places, traditional birthday songs are sung, one of the most common being “Happy Birthday To You”. The tune for this was originally a kindergarten song called “Good Morning To You”, a little ditty that a musician named Mildred Hill and her teacher sister, Patty Smith Hill, composed for Patty’s pupils to sing before class. That was in 1893, which means the actual medley has passed into the public domain, but the “Happy Birthday” lyrics were composed later (around 1924) and were placed under copyright in 1935. They are not in the public domain, and won’t be until 2030. Singing it at home birthday parties is okay, but you won’t hear the full rendition in a movie or TV show unless the producers have paid the copyright holder (Time Warner) for the privilege.